Since the 1920s, a small group of local civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama, fought a racist system that terrorized Black Americans and barred them from voting. By the 1960s, the work of the Dallas County Voters League and others had attracted national partners—and a dynamic young pastor and community organizer, Martin Luther King Jr. Collaborating and building on the foundation Alabama residents had laid, groups such as the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and King’s own Southern Christian Leadership Conference strategically constructed a campaign that would expose segregation’s endemic violence and, eventually, pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Sixty-five years later, 2,000 miles from Selma, a coalition of reformers in Los Angeles is harnessing the power of the vote through a ballot measure that will begin to fundamentally reshape what criminal justice looks like in our county and country. The Measure R ballot measure will bring much needed oversight, transparency, and accountability to the LA County Sheriff’s Department, as well as the funding needed to create alternative systems of care for people with severe mental illness. This has been a long and arduous fight, and as we’ve fought, we’ve drawn lessons from King’s critical work.
Certainly, Selma of the 1960s Alabama Black Belt is not LA of the 21st century. By the mid-1960s, Dallas County, of which Selma was the county seat, was 57% Black, but less than 1% of eligible Black voters were registered. At the time, neighboring Wilcox and Lowndes—known as “Bloody Lowndes”—counties had never had one Black voter, a mass disenfranchisement accomplished by intimidation, violence, and difficult, bogus literacy tests designed to exclude Black voters. It was dangerous to try to vote as a Black person in Dallas County; Sheriff Jim Clark informally deputized local white men who stalked, harassed, and routinely beat would-be voters and protesters. One 1964 media account told of deputies recording detailed physical descriptions of voting rights activists so the advocates could be easily identified when their bodies were fished out of a river at a later date.
To some observers, the routine brutality of Selma’s law enforcement and mobs made it an unlikely location for a major civil rights campaign. Violence was a certainty—and it erupted during the now-famous march between Selma and Montgomery in March 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday.” But therein lie lessons for modern activists like me and those of us trying to dismantle a carceral system that’s as insidious as Jim Crow.
King knew groups like the Dallas County Voters League and SNCC had been on the ground fighting against voter suppression for years, so he dedicated much of his organizing to bringing them together. SNCC was younger and more radical than King’s crew, and mainstream Black organizations often channeled fewer resources—and less respect—to the student movement. Sometimes at odds with one another, the many actors in the Selma campaign worked through conflict and toward consensus about strategy. Ultimately, they took on the most critical issue of their time: voting rights, which determined Black people’s access to the electoral and political power necessary to drive change on all other civil rights issues.
The Selma activists—including Alabama native future U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Silas Norman, Faye Bellamy, and others—knew that organizers had to tackle what seemed impossible—and that national change often starts on local stages.
Selma was ground zero for the movements for voting rights and Black dignity in the 1960s, just as LA is ground zero for criminal justice reform today. The county is home to the largest jail system in the world, incarcerating nearly 17,000 people daily. And in the last decade, organizers brought together two important formations: Justice LA and Reform L.A. Jails, a coalition of more than 50 groups and thousands of Angelenos who started by successfully leading the fight to prevent LA from building two proposed jails. At a cost of $3.5 billion dollars, these facilities—a mental health jail and a women’s jail—would have been symbols of LA County’s continued investment in mass incarceration, and divestment from local communities and efforts to provide actual care for those suffering from mental illnesses, chronic homelessness, and drug dependency. I don’t think King could have ever imagined that jails, prisons, probation, and parole would grow to steal away, torture, and exploit millions of our family members.
I firmly believe that mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s when political leaders labeled children “superpredators,” and created or aligned with draconian policies. Many perpetuated jail expansion policies fueled by a “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality. At my core, I knew this was not right. I refused to see my brothers or my neighbors as disposable or monstrous. For almost two decades, my life’s work has been focused on the need to rethink public safety and accountability and where our tax dollars are being spent. We must challenge the police state and invest in the social welfare state.
On January 12, 2016, communities all over LA County—led by Dignity and Power Now’s first project, the Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence in LA Jails—after working tirelessly for six years to hold the sheriff’s department accountable, celebrated a victory. We pushed for the creation of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission (COC), a body made up of community members and government officials with the power to oversee family assistance, county jails, immigration policy, mental evaluations, use of force, and deputy subgroups in the county. This was an important victory for us, but our fight is not over.
Black and Latinx organizers have been pushing back against a county that has been criminalizing human beings in droves. We’ve built Reform LA Jails, a ballot committee of people directly impacted by the corruption of the sheriff’s department and the county’s inadequate justice system. We came together to get Measure R on the ballot. A Yes on Measure R vote will ensure the COC can thoroughly investigate, research, and create a Comprehensive Public Safety Reinvestment Plan to reduce LA’s jail population and provide alternatives to incarceration.
The Measure R ballot measure would expand the legal powers for the COC to effectively and independently investigate misconduct and corruption. In addition, it would also require LA County to develop a plan in seven months to reduce jail population and reinvest the savings into treatment services. These demands have come from years of our own research and conversations on the ground with the people and families that have been most deeply impacted by the criminal legal system.
While many of us came together with a clear goal, it didn’t take away from the internal conflict that often happens when coalitions come together. Just as organizers in Selma had to negotiate between radical versus more moderate strategies, some Angelenos believed a ballot measure was not the most radical approach to changing the system. Others believed that electoral politics should be a part of a multipronged strategy that centers building the power of the people most affected by the pain of incarceration and law-enforcement brutality.
My experience as a community organizer and my understanding of how the Selma campaign worked—and won—taught me that the best organizers evolve politically and personally in order to achieve freedom for those at the margins.
We cannot afford to suffer in silence. We cannot afford to suffer in silos. We need LA now, more than ever, to show up and vote for ourselves, our family members, and everyone in our community so that we can do better. Through beatings, difficult coalition politics, fear, and negotiations with the White House, the Selma coalition believed in the power of the vote and the power of people who deserved to be voters. On March 3, we have an opportunity to vote on a local measure that will force public officials to have critical conversations with us about the future of criminal justice in our county: Vote Yes on Measure R.
As the fight of King and the civil rights movement has taught us, the work does not end after the vote has been cast. Once we win—and I know that we will—it is our charge to continue to challenge the old narratives of disposability and criminality. It is our charge to transform the conversation into one that is centered on justice and our collective responsibility to heal.
Let’s do it together.
Patrisse Cullors is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a senior fellow at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @OsopePatrisse.
Read more of Prism’s series on the movement to reform Los Angeles County jails here, and follow us on Twitter @ourprisms and on Facebook for more reporting on criminal justice and grassroots work toward reform. Prism is a nonprofit affiliate of Daily Kos. Our mission is to make visible the people, places, and issues currently underrepresented in our democracy. By amplifying the voices and leadership of people closest to the problems, Prism tells the stories no one else is telling.